A southern Jewish matron and her kindly black chauffeur grow old together in Georgia. It is a deceptively simple story, plainly filmed and superbly acted. But below its quiet surface—and its gentle ripples of comic irony—there is strong social drama about affection and hypocrisy, loyalty and racism. As a Pulitzer Prizewinning play, Driving Miss Daisy has been successfully staged across North America since its off-Broadway première in 1985. Now, its author, American playwright Alfred Uhry, has managed to preserve the integrity of his script with his own screen adaptation. And Australian director Bruce Beresford, who brought a fresh eye to the American South with Tender Mercies (1982) and Crimes of the Heart (1986), makes the story’s transition to the screen seem as easy
and intimate as a drive down a country lane.
In the movie, Morgan Freeman returns to the role of the chauffeur, Hoke, which he played in the original New York City stage show. And veteran actress Jessica Tandy portrays his prickly employer, Daisy. Both stars deserve Oscar nominations—Freeman delivers one of the year’s most powerful performances with a disarming economy of expression; Tandy, at the age of 80, crowns a marathon career with an inspiring display of character acting. Casting Dan Aykroyd as Daisy’s son, Boolie, is adventurous. But in his first dramatic role, the actor is admirably restrained, offering toned-down versions of his usual comic mannerisms.
Set in Atlanta, the story spans a quartercentury of slow change in the American South. It begins with 72-year-old Daisy’s backing her new 1948 Packard into her neighbor’s garden, an accident that leaves her unscathed but marks the end of her days behind the wheel. Against her wishes, Boolie hires Hoke, a 60-
year-old widower, to serve as her chauffeur. Daisy at first stubbornly refuses to accept her new servant and resents his presence.
The patient, bemused Hoke humors Daisy until she finally agrees to ride as his passenger. In time, she learns to answer his devotion with measured affection, but she remains blind to her own deep-seated prejudice. And even after her local synagogue has been bombed by extremists, she persists in denying that, as a Jew, she, too, is a target of southern bigotry.
The civil rights movement simmers in the background, forming the subtext for an oddcouple drama that downshifts smoothly from funny to poignant. Hoke is the story’s heart and soul. And Freeman plays him with great dignity and warmth. His eyes brim with the cagey wit of a servant who understands more than he dares express. His shuffling pleasantries, his acquiescent “Yes’m” and his appreciative laugh mask hidden layers of wisdom.
Meanwhile, Beresford’s understated direction builds emotion without a trace of artificial sweetener. And documentary reality is woven seamlessly into the story with a visit to Atlanta by civil rights leader Martin Luther King. A recording of one of King’s speeches evokes the kind of pain that underlies the awkward bond between Daisy and Hoke. The obstacle to equality, he says, is not just the acts of bad people, but “the appalling silence and indifference of the good people.” In Driving Miss Daisy, that silence speaks volumes.
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